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Key Watchdog Launches Inquiry into Syria Chlorine-Strike Allegations

By Diane Barnes

Global Security Newswire

A Syrian rebel fighter walks on a dust-covered street in Aleppo following a reported government airstrike on Sunday. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons on Tuesday said it would seek to "establish facts" about claims of chlorine-gas attacks in Syria. A Syrian rebel fighter walks on a dust-covered street in Aleppo following a reported government airstrike on Sunday. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons on Tuesday said it would seek to "establish facts" about claims of chlorine-gas attacks in Syria. (Baraa al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images)

The world's chemical-arms watchdog said it will send investigators to Syria to "establish facts" about reported chlorine-gas attacks in its civil war.

President Bashar Assad's forces would escort international inspectors through regime-controlled areas of the devastated country under plans announced on Tuesday by Ahmet Üzümcü, director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Assad's government and opposition groups have accused each other of carrying out recent alleged attacks involving chlorine, a common industrial substance that the Middle Eastern nation is not required to relinquish under a disarmament plan formulated last year.

Personnel would "soon" travel to Syria to begin the probe, the chemical-arms agency said in a statement. The plan reportedly elicited statements of praise from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and from participants in a Tuesday meeting of the watchdog's 41-nation governing board at The Hague, Netherlands.

Robert Mikulak, the U.S. ambassador to the chemical-controls organization, pressed the government in Damascus to "immediately and fully cooperate" with the planned investigation, and said the probe would examine claims of chlorine-gas attacks in the village of Kfar Zeita earlier this month.

The envoy added that a U.N.-OPCW disarmament oversight team should look into whether Damascus has reported its full inventory of chemical arms to international authorities.

"Up to this point, the elimination effort has been focused solely on the chemical weapons and associated equipment and facilities disclosed by Syria," he said. "Additional attention will need to be focused on verifying the accuracy and completeness of Syria’s submissions."

Mikulak also demanded "immediate and tangible" actions by Assad's government to show it is committed to eliminating roughly 100 tons of remaining chemical-warfare materials. The substances represent the final 8 percent of declared chemical-arms materials still in regime custody. Assad agreed to dismantle the full stockpile after hundreds of people died from nerve-agent poisoning in August on the Syrian capital's outskirts.

"Our understanding is that Syria has yet to even undertake the packing and other actions necessary to prepare the chemicals at the final site for transport," Mikulak said in prepared remarks.

He urged Damascus to take actions such as eliminating its final stocks of weapon-usable isopropyl alcohol, "prepositioning transport equipment; decanting chemicals; [and] beginning packing and site preparations."

The diplomat said Assad's government should also hold "a readiness posture at the port of Latakia," where foreign ships have been picking up chemical-warfare stocks for destruction at overseas locations.

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